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Legislature embraces new Buffalo Billion in budget plans

ALBANY – Both houses of the Legislature will approve separate state budget plans this week permitting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to spend $500 million on a new round of Buffalo Billion economic development programs in Western New York.

But while neither the Senate nor Assembly is calling for a direct say in how state money is spent by Cuomo, the houses are demanding what lawmakers call new transparency measures.

In the Assembly, that means members of a regional council that advises Cuomo’s economic development agency on Buffalo Billion funding must, like other state boards, disclose information annually about their personal finances to help avoid potential conflicts of interest.

In the Senate, it means more comprehensive public reporting about how economic development funding for programs like the Buffalo Billion is spent.

“Our house did not touch the Buffalo Billion, but transparency is the goal,’’ said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s economic development committee.

Despite worries publicly issued by Cuomo about lawmakers trying to block the next round of funding targeted for Western New York job creation efforts, lawmakers on Monday delighted in announcing their support for the initiative.

“There is more work to be done and Buffalo Billion II must be a major component of those ongoing efforts,’’ said a statement released by the five members of the region’s Republican delegation in the GOP-led Senate: Catharine Young, Michael Ranzenhofer, Patrick Gallivan, Rob Ortt and Chris Jacobs.

Cuomo has spent weeks portraying efforts by lawmakers as a power grab to gain more control over job creation money and bolster pork barrel spending, although it has been governors, long before Cuomo, with the biggest allotment of earmarked funding in the budget each year.

The acceptance of the Buffalo Billion funding by the Legislature will be contained in so-called “one house” budget measures being adopted this week. As “resolutions,” instead of actual legislation, the measures do not have the force of law.

But, they will guide the parameters of talks over the next couple of weeks as a final 2017-18 budget deal is negotiated by legislative leaders and Cuomo.

While on the surface appearing to give in to Cuomo on the Buffalo Billion, the Legislature, in the context of overall economic development funding, takes a number of slaps at the Democratic governor that are certain to be a challenge for the sides to resolve before April 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

“We’d just like him to … notice us on the economic development projects like the ones in Buffalo. We’d just like to have an idea what his plan is for the Buffalo Billion,’’ Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said Monday.

Changes that lawmakers want to economic development programs were made ripe following allegations by federal prosecutors that the Buffalo Billion and a couple of other big upstate initiatives were part of a massive, alleged pay-to-play, bid-rigging scandal.

A trial in that case, which involves associates to Cuomo and former top executives from Buffalo’s LPCiminelli, is expected later this year.

Lawmakers want many changes to how Cuomo spends economic development money, including:

  • The Assembly budget wants public financial disclosures for members of the Regional Economic Development Councils, which help Cuomo steer $750 million in annual spending, as well as the contours of the Buffalo Billion effort. The Cuomo administration has said that will push many private sector executives who serve on the panel to stop volunteering.
  • The Assembly would go beyond that, requiring Cuomo to create a public, searchable database of all aspects of economic development spending, including by nonprofit entities created by the state, such as the controversial Fort Schuyler Management Corp. The state university created that, to run the Buffalo Billion program, including the state’s investment in the SolarCity plant.
  • The Assembly also wants Cuomo to give lawmakers 30 days’ notice before any intent to distribute economic development funds.
  • Both houses also reject Cuomo’s effort to rebrand and change the scope of the Start-Up NY program. The governor launched it a couple of years ago – with more than $50 million in marketing – to give companies 10 years’ worth of tax-free benefits for locating in certain areas.

The Senate GOP budget also calls for an end to new applicants to Start-Up NY as of April 1, 2018. The program has suffered from anemic job creation numbers. The Senate GOP also wants new “performance measures” for large advertising programs to promote state jobs programs – a measure promoted by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

“We have concerns for economic development … Should there be more transparency? We think that there should. And we do think there should be legislative input,’’ said Gallivan, an Elma Republican.

On other budget fronts, both houses want to tinker with Cuomo’s plan for free public college tuition for families making up to $125,000 a year. Both seek to expand the Tuition Assistance Program.

In the Assembly, lawmakers seek to up the maximum annual award to $6,500 over the next four years, put aside $40 million for part-time students at community colleges, and increase the maximum free tuition income level to $150,000 in four years.

The Assembly also wants Cuomo to devise a plan to help people 10 years out of college to refinance remaining student debt.

Other aspects of the budget plans include:

  • The Assembly wants to increase state aid to public schools by $1.8 billion, or $864 million more than Cuomo proposed. It also rejects a new plan by Cuomo to abandon the main formula by which the money is spent. The Senate would not put out a number Monday evening.
  • The Senate will signal an “openness” to raising, as Cuomo and the Assembly want, the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old.
  • Both houses reject Cuomo’s attempt to alter how legislatively approved spending is done after the budget is adopted, insisting, instead, that special sessions be called if the state’s budget has to be amended later this year if the Trump administration and Congress okay Obamacare changes that could affect the flow of federal money to Albany.

“He’ll just have to come to talk to us,’’ Heastie said of Cuomo, should the budget revenues change mid-year.

The Assembly also rejects several Cuomo plans to benefit the alcoholic beverage industry, including allowing all movie theaters to sell wine and beer.

The Senate is planning to approve its one-house budget bill on Tuesday, though the major snowstorm expected could change that.

The Assembly will vote Wednesday.

All sides are rushing to meet a March 31 deadline for the budget to be considered on-time.

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